When I first hit the road in my van, I dreamed of working remotely with epic views. Backdoors open, overlooking a river while typing away on my laptop, or casually working from a camp chair with a desert sunset as the backdrop. I wanted the ultimate van life office.
I quickly realized those dreams were going to remain just dreams unless I changed my mobile office setup. Sunlight glare on my laptop, a weak mifi connection, a sore back from hunching over, and running low on laptop battery power, were ruining that perfect vision.
I was spending more time adjusting my work space than actually working.
But when I started researching portable office setups, I was surprised there aren’t any ideal options for van lifers. That’s why I want to share what’s worked for me.
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5 Mobile Office Tools I Use Daily
I’m going to level with you–my setup is not glamorous. My DIY office space suits my full-time remote work needs just fine–but it’s very basic. This is budget vanlife, after all!
Qualities I wanted in my van life office:
- can easily transition between inside or outside of my van
- takes up minimal storage space
- is inexpensive
- is multi-functional (i.e. a desk that could also serve as a makeshift kitchen counter)
I wanted a mobile office that could easily transition between inside or outside of my van. Maybe you’re already working remotely while traveling or plan on doing it soon. Either way, a good “van office” is critical for productivity.
Here are the mobile office tools that have helped me work more effectively.
1. Folding Lap Desk
A simple desk that gets the job done! I’ve used it both outside and inside my van, if I’m working from my bed. The legs are adjustable so you can make it as tall or short as needed. The desk top can pivot on the legs as well, so you can angle the desk whichever way.
One edge of the desk has small clips which have come in handy if I have papers on the table outside and the wind picks up. I’ve also used the clips to keep books open on certain pages. The clips are advertised as a way to help secure your laptop to the table, but I’ve never had to use them for that. The surface of the table is pretty grippy so it holds the laptop in place well.
I’m not going to name it the sturdiest desk out there, but it’s sturdy enough to keep my mug of coffee and/or food plate on while I work. And since this is budget van life, it fits the bill just right.
2. Adjustable Clamp Umbrella
Two words: sun glare. Sun glare on a laptop screen is single-handedly what ruins working outside on a beautiful, sunny day. My favorite feature of this umbrella is the “joint” halfway up the shaft that allows me to adjust its angle. This way, I can adjust the umbrella throughout the day as the sun shifts in the sky. I highly recommend that you opt for the Extra Large size because it’s the only one big enough to cover both you and your laptop.
The clamp can open wide enough to fit on the side of a picnic table (as shown) or as small as the side of a camping chair. The umbrella is made of SPF 50 material so you’re thoroughly protected.
Similar to the lap desk though, I wouldn’t call it extremely sturdy–but it’s sturdier than I expected. I’ve been impressed at just how tight I can screw the clamp so the umbrella stays in place. Wind hasn’t caused it to shift and it’s delivered on what I hoped it would.
3. Portable Solar Panels
Even if you have solar panels on your camper van, it’s really convenient having a set of portable ones as well. This way, you can work as far away from your van as desired without needing to go back for recharging your tech gadgets. Heads up, ToGo brand (the ones pictured above) has since altered their 60W solar panels from three down to two panels, but it doesn’t change the power.
These 60W solar panels allow me to keep all my battery-powered tools charged up while I’m off the grid. I mainly use them to charge my portable Jackery battery, but the back panel has a USB and USB-C outlet where I can charge my camera battery and cell phone, as well.
They’re durable, easy to set up and fold back up. They have a thick handle for easy carrying and a back zipper pocket for storing the cables. Especially when I’m out in the sunny desert, these panels are insanely efficient at keeping my items charged.
4. Portable Power Station
This is more than a portable desk tool…it comes in handy for random power needs all the time. A pricey investment that’s been worth every penny! You can read a more in-depth review of my Jackery 240 portable battery. This battery (in conjunction with the solar panels) allows me to stay off grid for as long as desired.
It’s compact, relatively lightweight, easy to carry and extremely sturdy. The Jackery 240 comes with two USB outlets, a 200W outlet and a 12V car outlet. I love this because many of my gadgets (cellphone, Fitbit watch, camera, iPad) come with different USB, outlet or car outlet chargers so I can mix and match to charge multiple devices at once on the Jackery.
My laptop drains the battery significantly faster than any other gadgets, but that’s to be expected. The Jackery constantly displays the input and output wattage levels so you can easily monitor if it’s draining faster than it’s charging.
5. Cell Signal Booster
This little antenna is very lightweight and comes with a thin, circular magnet that stays on the roof of my van. To enhance my cell signal, I put the antenna on the magnet (it’s a very strong magnet), plug my phone into the booster, and plug the booster into my van’s 12v “cigarette lighter” outlet.
To be clear, this cell signal booster does not provide a signal if there isn’t already one –it only enhances a weak signal. Surprisingly, the majority of camp spots I end up at tend to have a weak but usable signal. The signal booster gives my phone a stronger connection, so when I use it as a mobile hotspot for my laptop, the wifi is much faster.
Here’s an in-depth review of the WeBoost and although mine has been really helpful, it’s also been unreliable at times.
Other Handy “Home Office” Van Gadgets
I can’t personally vouch for all of these tools, but I know other van dwellers that have used these at one time or another.
Steering Wheel Tray
This is as basic as it gets–a simple tray that latches to your steering wheel so you have a small but functional desk or table. I don’t think this would work well for any full-time setup, but great for road trips or as an optional setup if you’re looking to mix things up.
Passenger Swivel Seat
A swivel seat is a bit more complex to install than anything else in this post. But a swiveling passenger seat can open up your work space and make for a much less cramped seating area. There are lots of camper van conversions that come with a built-in swivel seat–typically your higher-end builds in RAM promasters, ford transits or Mercedes sprinter vans.
Portable Van Awning
The great thing about a van awning is that it requires less adjusting throughout the day than the adjustable clamp umbrella I talk about above. You get a much bigger space of shade coverage and you’re totally protected from rain.
I’ve been using the Moonshade awning and I’m impressed with its ease of use. It has all different types of anchor options for different rooftops. It comes with the suction cup anchors (which thankfully work great with my van’s fiberglass rooftop!).
There you have it! I’m not ashamed to admit this is no Instagram-worthy custom Mercedes-Benz Sprinter luxury mobile office van. But it’s just right for my tiny home and has allowed me to continue “the van life” while keeping money in my pocket!
Don’t underestimate the importance of good ergonomics just because you’ll be living and working in a small space. If it’f your full-time home, it should feel like a real home office!